Is the automatic visa for entering the United States a cause for celebration?

by Digital Rights LAC on May 5, 2014


From April onwards it will be possible to travel as a tourist from Chile to the USA without having a visa. Although this agreement was considered by the former Chilean government as a triumph, the cost for granting this “privilege”, for the enjoyment of a minority, will be paid off with the personal data of all Chileans.

By Juan Carlos Lara*

When former Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno and former Ambassador Rodrigo Bulnes were in Washington celebrating the start of the visa waiver program for Chile, it was hailed as a great achievement for the country. However, there has been little mention of what the country actually had to provide in exchange for a few Chileans to travel without a visa, which is nothing less than the personal data of all its citizens. The light manner in which the data of the Chilean people is being handled, is not just a problem of the Piñera government or due to the demands of the United States, but one of a State which has failed to understand the fundamentals of privacy in an age of surveillance.

The cost of the visa waiver for Chilean citizens stems from an agreement, signed in May 2013, for exchanging information to investigate and prevent crime, which was a requirement for entering the visa program. It is a form of cooperation that rests on the willingness of states to respond to the requirements of their allies, by providing information from people who have been identified by their fingerprints, and who are under suspicion or have pending felony investigations upon them. With regard to serious offenses, the agreement refers to those who have one year prison sentences or above, or face even greater forms of punishment (such as the death penalty), where each State must abide to its own domestic law.

The previous government sent the agreement to Congress for its approval, emphasizing its importance as part of the program. However, the agreement has not been transcribed into the project which seeks its approval, leaving out important details from public view which could be crucial for Chileans. Although they claim that it is for exchanging information on people and circumstances, it also includes the transfer of data for “prevention” measures which are undoubtedly blurry, not unlike those that have been denounced by Edward Snowden against the United States, as a way of justifying mass surveillance. In this case however, it would force data to be handed over without even tapping or intervening systems, which is like offering a blank check for the data of the Chilean people, besides it being negotiated totally behind their backs.

Nevertheless, this questionable deal is not the sole responsibility of the government of Piñera. Less than two weeks ago, the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives, delivered its report on the agreement, almost unanimously approving it (with the abstention of Guillermo Tellier) without making any warnings about its content. Upon the approval of an opaque deal, Congress was already giving out automatic visas. To make matters worse, a bill was also added (which is already in the hands of the same committee) that allows such data exchange with other countries.

At this point, it is absurd to expect the USA to change its perspective on its own internal and external security. What remains is the responsibility of our own State, which, regardless of the government in power, refuses to take seriously the rights of individuals or regulate personal data appropriately. The authorities seem more willing to open the door on indiscriminate cross-border traffic data, than to offer a solution for their total misuse in Chile. Are there actually any security measures for personal data in Chile? Do they exist in the Registry, after the impunity of the illegal copying of its database? Do we have any real protection? Will the USA collaborate with Chile on the same terms?

It is important to understand that a dignified country stands before the world not by granting privileges to a minority, but for acknowledging the rights of all its citizens. Without ensuring these rights, without adequate regulation of all personal data, no agreement should ever be signed.

Juan Carlos Lara is content Director of Digital Rights NGO
Twitter: @DonJC
Translation: Franklin Roach